Saturday 29 August 2015

Affirming Your Boundaries with a Smile

It's Seraphic Singles Saturday, and I hope I can rise to the challenges of guru-dom as I have been felled by a horrible head-cold. I am not feeling terrifically brainy right now, so it is a good thing I got the Dear Auntie Seraphic letter some undisclosed time ago.

To protect the identity of your fellow reader, I shall just tell the story. In short, she was chatting away after Mass, greeting strangers in her hospitable way, when a new young man asked her out for coffee. Remembering my dictum of "It's just coffee!", she said she'd be happy to meet for coffee, and they exchanged phone numbers, emails, etc.

But then the young man contacted her about having LUNCH. Your fellow reader froze. She had said yes to coffee, but now Mr New Guy was saying lunch.

Now, your fellow reader is a very busy woman and the only time she has to have lunch with people is on Sundays after Mass, a cherished time slot she dedicates to her friends every week. However, she felt honour-bound to have lunch with this chap, so suggested the following (not "this") Sunday.

Mr New Guy, after sending long and friendly emails to our heroine all week, turned up early to Mass on "this" Sunday, hovered at her elbow and made it clear that he expected her to sit with him. In the nicest way, she hinted that she would not be sitting with him but as usual with her friends. Nevertheless, he stressed his hope she would sit with him at Mass, joking about how to make himself more visible.  Our heroine felt awkward about the whole situation and very sorry she had agreed to lunch. She wrote to me to ask what she should do.

I read her email, thought about it, went to sleep, woke up, read it again and ruled that she had grounds for saying she had double-booked for Sunday and had a prior obligation to her friends. Usually I would never suggest a woman break a date--except for reasons of safety or a family emergency--but in this case, it seemed to me that the longstanding permanent lunch date with friends was necessary to the mental health and flourishing of my hardworking reader. Besides, it was clear she didn't want to have lunch with this man, and only agreed to because she thought she "had" to.

I suggested that she apologize for the double-booking and say what would have been easier at the time, which is that she is too busy right now for new lunch engagements, but was open to having that coffee. And this, I felt, would be generous of her after the awkwardness of his Sunday importunity. The young man's behaviour suggested that he is lonely and desperate, and it is not nice when our fellow Catholics, new to our communities, are lonely and desperate. Naturally we do not want them to take a mile when we offer them an inch--a habit all too common to the socially awkward--but "I was a stranger and you welcomed Me" is something we all want to hear on Judgement Day.

The truth is, a longstanding member of a community--with a group of friends in it, with a weekly lunch date--has a confidence and social clout a newcomer does not have. Under this circumstances, it should be easy to say "Howdy, stranger" to someone new. However, it should also be easy to say, "Whoa. Steady on there. I'm happy to do X, but Y is inconvenient."

There are lots of kinds of Single people, but this story is about two kinds: the Single who grabs onto anyone friendly like he or she is drowning, and the Single who thinks he or she "HAS" to give up cherished time with friends or other beloved activities to "get out there" and "go on a date" if he or she is serious about wanting to be married. And here am I to say "Stop that" to both.

I've wailed dozens of times about all the time I wasted on dates when meanwhile the man I was meant to marry was across the ocean in Scotland.* However, I suppose all those dates helped make me the woman Benedict Ambrose fell in love with, not to mention a good source of dating advice. And one thing I have learned from Single-and-dating-ness is that you shouldn't go to boring parties just "to get out there." Meeting a fellow Catholic for a coffee because he is new and "I was a stranger..." is a good thing to do. But giving up much-loved girl-time to meet a stranger just in case he is the One--nope.

A coffee is just a coffee. Lunch with a stranger is a date. Whereas I think Searching Singles should have lots of coffees--even married Auntie Seraphic goes for coffee with Single pals, male and female--I don't think anyone HAS to go on a date with a stranger. Naturally, you don't HAVE to have that coffee either, although I think you should (unless the guy is a proven animal). First coffee, and if he's a nice Catholic boy you like okay as a friend, two dates before you decide you're just never going to click. (Rarely can you tell on the first date; few people are at their best on the first date.)

Let your coffee be coffee, and your lunch be lunch. If someone asks if you'd like to have coffee, and you say "All right!" and then he tries to change it to lunch/dinner/movie/trip and you feel nonplussed, simply say "No, thank you--too busy. But I wouldn't mind having that coffee." If he argues, he's a drip, and I give you full permission (not that you need it) to say, "I change my mind on that coffee. Clearly you're not the kind of man who respects boundaries."

*To be fair, the older I got, the more fun these dates tended to be, and I certainly ate a lot of very good meals and had a lot of interesting conversations. Credit where credit is due, and in hindsight I was a terrible, disloyal girlfriend before I was 24. In a book, I would have come to a bad end, dying of consumption like Ruby Gillis, but as you can see, I have not.


  1. This is such wonderful advice, Seraphic. I'm particularly drawn by your call to "Stop that" to _both_ of assuming we have to grab onto anyone friendly if we're lonely and especially that we _have_ to go off on that date if we have any hope at all of ever, perhaps, one day, being married.

    This reminds me so much of a similar situation in my own parish (this may be long, as I am wordy), which I frantically left a comment about here several months ago. Nice, slightly older but I thought still youngish man (as it turned out, he was at least a decade older than me) with whom I had mutual church friends/acquaintances asked me out for coffee after Mass; I went, because I was flattered and curious (never having been spontaneously asked out for coffee before) and we had a lovely conversation over about 1.75 hrs. Mutual interests, strong faith, etc. Exchanged emails and so on. Fast forward to three days later - we had another coffee date, during which I grew extremely uncomfortable and stressed with how much he was clearly into me, the way he kept trying to bring up how fond he was of playing with his sister's kids (the guy actually said, 'Oh, I don't think I would be a very good disciplinarian' -- !!), and the absolute and utter lack of any 'spark' or 'attraction' that I felt towards him. Plus the age difference, which we never actually admitted, though he kept trying to figure out how old I was. I regretted going on that second coffee date, and as he emailed me continuously throughout the week, I turned into an emotional wreck as I tried to let him down easy, by replying less and less frequently and more vaguely, whilst coping with immense feelings of guilt at having done what I perceived as 'leading him on.' In the end, he sent one email that was just wince-inducing and a little inappropriate, so I just stopped replying completely, and since then, I have merely been friendly and polite, but not inviting when I see him briefly at church, and I have responded to his texts inviting me to group events with our mutual circle of acquaintances with 'sorry, other commitments' (in each case, a real conflict of commitments; though, frankly, I'm annoyed, b/c I'd love to get to know the group but not through him). Anyway, fast forward a few months later... and I find out that he's tried the same pattern on a friend of a friend. He's the kind of guy who will hop aisles during Communion so that he can get closer to you. And I feel such...well, I am sorry for him that he is so lonely and desperate to have a girlfriend or woman that he must go to such great lengths, and I wish that he could find someone who would welcome him, but I'm glad it's not me.

    Anyway, where am I going with this? I guess I learned a lot about boundaries through it. About my own boundaries of what I want, what I don't, and what makes me uncomfortable. And about the importance of just plain old friendship, and not being impatient, and not pushing things.

    The TL;DR? I agree with this post very much! :)

  2. Oh dear. It would help these guys so much if we just told them, "Look. I'm going to be honest with you because you're my fellow Catholic/human being and as such I care about your future happiness. You come on too strong. You're scaring me, and you'll scare the next girl you ask out for coffee. By talking about kids all the time and what kind of a dad you're going to be, you make me feel like I'm nothing but a potential baby machine. I hope to be a mom some day, but I'm only going to have kids with a guy who is interested in me for ME."

    However, I realize just HOW HARD it is to say that because we are trained to BE NICE.

    In this guy's case, I think you made the right call. He is needy and desperate and possibly needs to sit with a counsellor. However, in future, don't reject a guy at once just because he is 10 years older than you. Once you are over 21, you may have a lot more in common with a 31 year old than you think. This, of course, depends on the girl and the guy. A light-hearted 31 year old is a good match for an "old soul" 21 year old, whereas a still very teenage 21 year old might be patronized by a 31 year old sobersides.

    Meanwhile, get to know the group. Mr Overeager must know you are not his future wife by now, and if not, say NO. NO. NO. He had his shot, and he blew it.

  3. And meanwhile, neither coffee was a mistake. You did the right thing by accepting the first--it was just coffee--and because that went well, you did the right thing by accepting the date. That counted as the "first date", so I am not surprised he blew it, not to mention you felt no spark. My honest opinion is that as soon as you were uncomfortable, you should have blurted out, "I'm uncomfortable." (How much our lives improve when we do that!) If he was appropriately apologetic, and you felt he deserved a second chance, then I would have recommended a second date, just to see if a little time, distance and familiarity made you see things in him you hadn't seen before. Then that would be the time to say, bluntly, "I've enjoyed our dates, but I don't feel a spark."

    It kills me that girls think they are leading a guy on just because they say "Yes" to coffee and then "Yes" to Date 1 and Date 2. That's not leading a guy on. Leading a guy on is a lot more involved than that!

    But that is a subject for another post.

    1. Thank you, Seraphic, for validating what I felt! I don't think any of it was a mistake, except perhaps my violent reaction of, 'I'M LEADING HIM ON OH NO!'. And, though I dislike categorizing people as learning experiences, it was, in the end, a good learning experience.

      The age thing -- it was more like a 27 - almost 40 difference. And though I am an old 27, I have literally no romantic-relationship-experience of which to speak, so that was a little bit daunting. Of course, I didn't actually tell him how old I was, so how was he to know? Yes, I think I'll go to the next group thing, if it turns out to not be a conflict, as there is a dearth of young Catholics my age in my city.

      Please write the Leading Guys On post! I would be interested in that. Can we still email you if we have other singledom-and-relationship-related stories that we want to seek your advice on? I have something I've been hoping to write to you about for some time.

    2. Well, send me an email, and I'll see. Meanwhile, if you do find an "almost 40" that you like, be comforted that the older you get, the less of a difference the age gap makes. (And once you're over 30, the over 40s magically become visible.)

      By all means go to the next group thing.

  4. This is brilliant, Seraphic. I especially love your point, "The truth is, a longstanding member of a community--with a group of friends in it, with a weekly lunch date--has a confidence and social clout a newcomer does not have." YES! It's important to remind myself sometimes that being established in various social circles gives me a lot of "privilege" (though that term gets tossed around waaaay too much) and I ought to use that privilege charitably, eg, welcome the stranger, etc etc. And yet! Boundaries and prudence!

    1. Exactly! Remember that you have the privilege and strength, and then use them confidently. Say "Hello!" but also, if necessary, say "Whoa!"

  5. This comes in such good time, as I can a potential situation building up..... Two and a half years ago I met a man at a dance in a distant city. We chatted for a LONG time. But that was it...he seemed nice, but a little shy, and he did not ask for my number, though I could feel that he was thinking about it.
    Recently, I moved to that city. And on the very last day of my CM subscription (I've tried it, and I'm done!), out of the blue, this guy messages me: "We met a dance once...."
    I replied that I'd enjoyed chatting, but didn't intend to renew my subscription. However, since I'd met him in real life and we live in the same city, I gave him my email address. He didn't email me: he sent me a FB request.
    Well, before accepting, I read the public part of his profile, and though I'd not been feeling more than just friendly before, that was enough for me to realize that I really was not going to be into this guy at all, and not comfortable with getting chummy, either. Not that he seems like a bad guy, just melancholic, self-important, and too intense. (Yes, you can tell all of this from the public portion of some people's FB).
    I reasoned like this: if I felt more interested, I'd probably say "Oh, being FB friends wasn't what I had in mind when I gave you my email address!" If I were interested in a guy, I feel like it would really matter to me that he played by the rules, used the type of contact info I gave him, etc. But as it is, I thought saying that would come off as some kind of encouragement. So, though I felt a little weird about it, I accepted his request....and now I'm kind of bracing myself.

    1. Well, say "yes" to what feels right (and isn't sinful) and "no" to what feels wrong. But if he asks you for coffee, it's just coffee, no matter what he thinks. A coffee is a coffee.

      Meanwhile, there is no rule book. There is no rule anywhere that says if a girl gives you her email address, you're not allowed to ask her to be your Facebook friend. I don't want to sound harsh about this, but I am constantly listening to women tell me how men don't do what they're supposed to do (open doors, take off hats, bow, put their cloaks over puddles), and I keep thinking, there is no rule book for men.

    2. I mean, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do -- but if you had a spark/good conversation once already with the guy in person, I'd give him another chance. When I met my husband, his facebook page was filled with quotes and jokes from his college days and didn't really reflect his entire personality (no webpage can!). Maybe his intense melancholy nature will be the perfect balance to your bubbly free-spirited personality (I have no idea if you are bubbly and free-spirited...but for the sake of the argument that's what I'm going with). Anyway, my guess is that he will ask you out on a date -- I mean, you were both on CM, presumably because you were both interested in dating other people. If he suggests something more long/involved, why not counter with "I'd rather start with just coffee," and that way it's only an hour of your time, and a chance to see if your impression from his fb profile was correct or not.

    3. Clarification: When I said "If he suggests something more long/involved" I meant if he suggests a date option that will take up a lot of time, like a meal and some kind of entertainment (concert, movie, walk), you could respond with an offer for coffee.

    4. I agree. Coffee, coffee, coffee. I once read a relationship book in which the author recommended slotting friendships with men into different venue-categories, e.g. "just coffee", "lunch upgrade" and "evening dates".


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